One Fan's Opinion: issue #34

Fri, April 21st, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

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I've had extended conversations with people about traditional American comics vs. manga.

Those that love manga, love it. Those that don't, don't. Few people are in the middle. But part of the argument pro-manga boosters make is that American comics could stand to learn from manga. They'll go on to talk about how manga are these fat books and why American comics should skip doing singles and just do fat books. The Japanese model most of these folks cite is flawed because it doesn't actually exist. In Japan, they don't have the American 32-page monthly format. Their comics are 240-pages long (or more), weekly, black and white, and printed on shitty recycled newsprint. Their best selling books sell in the millions and their cover price is about $2. The stories are clipped into 20 page bits much like our comics are, only their weekly comics have 12 to 20 different features and those are what is collected as the small single volumes that we see here in the United States.

We don't get the ones printed like crap on recycled paper with big chunks of undigested wood floating around on its pages. We get the small, neat, trim, pretty little books with colorful covers on a thicker stock. The stories in them seem meaty and substantial, but try to imagine getting 20-page increments of these and try to picture how satisfying it would be to read that on a weekly basis -- plus a mess of other story fragments. Each chapter has vastly less information than can be found in a typical American funnybook, but then a typical American comic costs $3 a pop and contains 22-pages, whereas manga costs about $2 for more than ten times as much material. Ours is full color -- theirs isn't.

ALL of their comics are creator-owned. None are passed to a successor. Books are with their creator and when a story ends, that's all she wrote. Yes, Japanese cartoonists have assistants -- sometimes as many as 20 and assistants do move on -- but it's always the same guy -- the creator -- at the helm.

There are no shared universes in Japanese comics. Characters don't meet and crossover or team up.

Is that bad? Is that good?

I dunno.

Does it bother you that Harry Potter will never meet anybody from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy or that the characters from "Star Wars" will never meet the characters from "Star Trek?" How important is a shared universe to you anyway? Isn't it okay to just read a story and not have to concern yourself with how the events in it will impact other books?

It's gotten to a point with me that I'm so completely lost as to what takes place in this, that and the other universes that I've all but given up on books that take place in shared universes. It's just too much shit to keep track of and since the creators and editors of those books are clearly making no effort to have it make sense or be a logical extension of what has come before that, the contradictions and inconsistencies have become insurmountable and verwhelming.

I just want to be entertained. Is that too much to ask for?

And so I buy back issues and reprints and search for odd eclectic comics by creators with entertaining stories to tell.

Years ago, I subscribed to a few manga weeklies. Through a (then) local Japanese bookstore in the Seattle area, I had them ship me comics on a monthly basis and they were terrific. I didn't understand a word, mind you, but the art and the storytelling and the energy was inescapable. Those manga books added up so quickly that they threatened to push me out of my apartment so I had to put an end to my subscriptions. I started picking up the smaller trades when I could find them.

I was drawing speed lines into my art as early as 1983, long before I'd seen it in any other American comics. Sometime later, numerous American cartoonists were incorporating speed lines into their comics. I remember "Zot," which looked something like manga meets Kirby, but not quite. One of my current favorite manga-inspired comics is "Scott Pilgrim." Now that is comics done right!

I don't think comics from any one country are inherently better than those of any other country. Manga suffers from being excessively padded. Dozens of pages are devoted to things that would get a page or panel in an American comic -- if they made the cut at all. American comics, though more padded than they've ever been, tend to be unsatisfying when a cost per page ratio is applied. And even so, one can complain that their stories are too shallow or unnecessarily complex.

People bellyache about manga because the characters look so exaggerated and cartoony. People bellyache about "realistic" comics because they're no fun. Why painstakingly reproduce a photograph? If you want it to be a photograph, take a photograph! Why restrict art by forcing it to adhere to rules that shouldn't apply to it in the first place?

I dunno.

I haven't bought a lot of translated manga.

I'm not really sure what's good or where to start. Few of the features that I liked have been translated. I bought two issues of "City Hunter," but I haven't seen any successive volumes. I don't know if they're forthcoming or if the book was axed or just what. I can't tell you what the other features that I liked were because the titles weren't in English. I look at the vast wall of manga in my local funnybook emporium and I just feel overwhelmed by it all.

It's gotten to the point where I feel that way about the American comics as well. It's a big jumble of colors.

As sick and possibly self-serving as it may sound, I've gotten into a lot of Image comics of late. When it comes right down to it-I'd rather read "The Walking Dead" than "The Amazing Spider-Man." Especially given that "The Walking Dead" actually makes sense if you read it from start to finish. I like the books we publish.

A friend was bemoaning the lack of a coherent Image Universe and while I'd like to see more effort made to acknowledge that certain titles do co-exist on a common planet, I think it's refreshing to be able to simply read a comic book and be entertained.

Now, granted, that's hardly a big message. There's nothing grand here. I'm not spilling any big secret. I like comics. I'm actively seeking out new comics to read. I buy and read anything that catches my eye. I've bought comics from nearly every publisher that's had a comic book printed.

What I like -- be it an American comic, a Chinese comic, a European comic or manga -- is a good story, well told. There are numerous approaches that are equally valid when it comes to telling a story. I'd encourage fans of traditional American comics to cross to aisle and look at the manga and see if there's something that you might enjoy. Similarly, I'd encourage fans of manga to check out the homegrown American comics to see what we're turning out.

There's something worthwhile to be had in every corner of your local comic book store and it's worth your while to explore. I've only just begun my exploration. When it comes right down to it, it's all one big, shared universe and it's all housed in one location -- your local comic book store.

See for yourself.

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